The Student Government Association (SGA) held special elections from midnight on Jan. 31 to midnight on Feb. 6 to fill eight vacant Senator positions for residence hall positions: one in Waring Commons (WC), one in Lewis Quad (LQ), one in Dorchester, two seats in Queen Anne (QA), one seat in Caroline, one Townhouse position and one commuter position.
Three out of eight vacant seats were filled by the end of the election last Thursday: the Waring Commons position was filled by Justin Karolyi, one position in QA was filled by Corine Hwang, and one position in LQ by Riley Woolston. The outcome leaves five Senate seats vacant.
The precedent for filling vacant SGA Senate seats in past years has been for the SGA President to appoint senators for each residence hall position in the absence of candidates to fill the seats. However, a member of the Executive Board recently discovered that the Constitution does not specify the president’s ability to appoint senators for their designated residence halls; those positions must be converted to senator at large positions which, under current SGA practice, are appointed by the president.
Adding to the confusion regarding senator at large appointments, SGA President Rebecca Malaga explained that, “there’s nothing in the Constitution that talks about who they represent, how they get into office, or what requirements there are for them. They are mentioned in terms of special elections and a few other places, but their actual position is not in the Constitution at all.”
The conversion of Senate seats typically designated to represent residence halls on campus to senator at large positions also raises issues regarding whether the students who live in those residence halls will receive representation within the SGA. Students communicate problems such as broken washing and vending machines to their SGA representatives, who can advocate for solutions during sessions. Because they are unaffiliated with any residences on campus, many students are unaware that senators at large represent the campus as a whole and can serve as intermediaries for student concerns.
The SGA Constitution also specifies that in order to make changes to it, a referendum must be conducted with the participation of at least two-thirds of the student body, a level of engagement that SGA elections, even at the height of student participation, have never reached. Malaga noted that, “typically only two hundred people vote in the actual executive elections, and last year we had five hundred, which was insane and super unprecedented. We’ve never had that many voters, but it’s still not even close to two-thirds of the student body.” Using a measure of the student population in Fall 2018 obtained from smcm.edu, a referendum under the current Constitution would require a total of 1,068 votes.
The SGA is considering a by-law amendment this week that would simply require a majority vote from the student body to decide whether changes to the Constitution can be made to replace the current two-thirds requirement. The vote is largely a result of vague language surrounding the senator at large position and ambiguity as to whether such senators can be appointed by the president in the absence of volunteer candidates. Malaga described the current state of the Constitution as “a big mess” and said that “it was written in 2009, and we have just dug ourselves a ten-year deep hole, and the longer we don’t do anything about it, the more disadvantaged the future SGA will be.”
Vacant seats and a lack of volunteer candidates pose the question of student involvement in SGA, especially in light of the resignations, in Fall 2019, of former Vice President Roselyanne Cepero Santos and Club Coordinator Victoria Chang.
When asked about the lack of candidates for SGA office, WC Senator Emma McNesby noted that many Senate positions were vacated by first years, saying that, “It’s hard because, especially at larger schools, it’s a paid job, so it’s a lot of work. You have to maintain a sense of professionalism that is harder for students especially when you’re younger. When you’re eighteen it’s hard to come in and you’re expected to communicate when you want to write a bill.” The SGA hosts workshops on how to write bills, including one hosted by McNesby last semester, but professional communication skills are ultimately left to students themselves to learn with experience.
Multiple members of the SGA noted that typically the Executive Board positions filled on a volunteer basis by students at St. Mary’s are paid, full-time positions elsewhere, at large schools like the University of Maryland-College Park and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. A bill was proposed in Spring 2018 to make certain Executive Board positions paid, but it was defeated in the Senate by a narrow margin.
While Senate seats were largely vacated by first-years, the positions of Vice President and Club Coordinator were vacated by upper-class students. When asked about the prevalence of vacancies on SGA and Executive Board, former Senator at Large Olivia Mouton said, “I think there’s a stigma behind SGA. I think we get blamed for a lot of things on campus and I don’t think that is necessarily valid.” Malaga remarked that, “the Club Coordinator was quite frankly treated very horribly by students, and I think that’s something that happens to a lot of student leaders.” Club Coordinator Victoria Chang resigned her position last semester because of mean-spirited emails and harassment directed at her from club leaders.
Colette Nortman assumed the role of Vice President in November 2019, and former Co-Club Coordinator Janine Benner is now the sole Club Coordinator. Regarding the resignations and the Constitutional issues faced by the SGA in the past semester, Malaga concluded that, “last semester was uniquely rough in a way that I don’t think any of us saw coming. It was just a growing pains kind of period and we lost people, we had people come on, and now I think the dust has settled and that will help a lot just by having a stable place to jump off from.”